The Grotto-Complex in Tiberius’s Villa at Sperlonga: Experientiality, Immersion, and Owner-as-Spectacle Open Access

May, Mekayla (Spring 2020)

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The grotto-complex in Tiberius’s villa at Sperlonga has features, however, that reveal a distinctive Roman execution intent on portraying the owner as occupying a liminal space between heaven and mortals. Attempting to recreate and enhance the natural theater, the owner strategically separates the grotto-complex from the familiar contexts of the villa, dining and symposium, and theater. He, instead, creates a new type of theater, in which both artifice and nature compete and complement as the owner attempts to occupy a divine-creator role of a landscape. Isolated from both the domestic villa and the public shore, the owner’s manipulation of subverted expectations and grotto-as-spectacle seduce the visitor into the grotto where the owner puts his power, wealth, and intelligence on display.

            Immersed in this grotto-landscape, the visitor occupies a space temporally suspended in which his own education and intelligence is tested against the owner’s. Both an actor and spectator and judge of his fellow diners and judged by them, the visitor explores the grotto to encounter the grotto-landscape in physical and mental participation and active viewing. Within the space, he realizes his mortality and divine power through assumption of various roles, a lesson that, despite his power, the owner also learned. This paper recontextualizes the grotto-complex within its larger landscape of burgeoning prominence and significance of seaside residences, at the historic first half of the first century CE, and within the creation of spectacle for dining and symposium contexts. To challenge scholarship’s limited focus on the four heroic groups, this paper introduces six additional sculptures as transitory objects encountered before immersing oneself in the alternative world of the grotto-landscape and upon exiting to return to the familiar. Consideration of the grotto-complex as a space reveals the owner, in his divine-creator yet mortal role, has strategically presented himself as the spectacle.

Table of Contents

List of Figures 1

Introduction 7

A Note on Previous Scholarship 12

Chapter 1: Architecture 15

Introduction 15

The Neighborhood 17

The Villa 19

The Nymphaeum 21

Exterior Grotto 23

Interior Grotto 27

Conclusion 31

Chapter 2: Four Heroic Groups 32

Introduction 32

Skylla 34

Palladion Group 38

Blinding of Polyphemus 40

The Interim 43

Pasquino Group 44

Conclusion 46

Chapter 3: Additional Sculptures 47

“Large Sculptural” Additions 48

Ganymede 48

Andromeda/Hesione 52

“Small Sculptural” Additions 56

Circe 56

Putti-figures 58

“Architectural” Additions 62

Venus Genetrix 62

Theater Masks 64

Conclusion 66

Figures 68

Bibliography 87

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